BAR HARBOR — Businesses in town that may be most affected by a citizen petition aimed at reducing cruise ship passenger caps find themselves on either side of the hotly-contested debate. Some laud the new proposal as a solution to overcrowded shops and streets; others see it as a death sentence for business.
The citizen initiative petition, if passed, would cap cruise ship passengers coming into town at 1,000 per day. Current limitations allow for 3,500 for the months of July and August and 5,500 for May, June, September and October.
“I would be really concerned about whether I’d be able to keep my shop open if the cruise ship passengers were greatly limited,” said Alison Brooke, owner of Oyster Cottage on West Street.
Brooke, who opened her gift shop selling hand-painted oyster dishes this year, said a majority of her customers come off the boats. When the Norwegian Pearl, which has the carrying capacity of more than 2,000 passengers, comes into town, she sees a noticeable bump in sales versus days bringing smaller ships.
Because of her proximity to the waterfront and tender landing, she recognizes shop owners farther up Main Street may not get the same boost from cruise ship customers.
“I’ve observed it and because I’m on the outskirts of town, and not in the center, or the bottom of the hill – the big cruise ships with 4,000 to 5,000 people – I never see ‘em down here,” said Valerie Griffith, owner of Arts and Ends antique shop. “If it’s 2,000 and under, I get those people.”
Griffith said she supports lowering the number of passengers disembarking each day because smaller ships are more manageable and allow for better crowd dispersion. But she believes a max of 1,000 is too restrictive and would prefer to see a cap of 2,500.
Victoria Conner, owner of My Darling Maine Island Boutique on Cottage Street, also said she supports minimizing the size and the number of cruise ships because she benefits from them selectively.
“For me, personally, it’s a hit or miss in terms of whether it’s a conversion for a sale,” Conner said. “I think there’s a qualitative versus quantitative kind of feeling about that. And a more discerning buyer is our customer.
Conner is a proponent of a passenger cap so that citizens feel more comfortable in their own town and are also able to support small businesses without having to contend with congestion from cruise ship crowds.
“The fact that I don’t sell blueberry and lobster, they may not hit me up. The fact that I don’t sell that quick souvenir that they can see to, say, check it off the box… They may not hit me up.”
She points out that some businesses in town do see an immediate positive impact from cruisers looking for those types of experiences.
Christopher Kemna, general manager of Testa’s Bar & Grill and The Loft Raw Bar and Seafood Lounge, said he bases his schedule off the cruise ship schedule. He will staff up with three extra servers on days when large vessels are scheduled.
“It seems like the people that make this limitation to 1,000 might not fully understand the full ramifications of that,” Kemna said. “They’re quite literally taking money out of the pockets of small business owners but also, more importantly, our employees and, more specifically, our tipped employees.”
Kemna said his tipped employees will annotate their calendar with dollar signs on cruise ships days because they know it will be a busy day and bring in more money.
Benjamin Curtis, business manager of Geddy’s, also said he increases staff on days when a cruise ship with 2,500 people is in town. His employees have more hours and servers receive more tips.
“We’d definitely have to make cuts in the kitchen and have less servers,” Curtis said, speaking to the possibility of limiting cruise passengers. “It would fall more on employees than it would necessarily on the business.”
“I do get a lot of people in town saying, ‘cruise ship passengers don’t eat at restaurants, they get food on the boat.’ I can just say that’s not true,” Kemna said.
Although downtown bars and restaurants welcome cruise ship days, other small businesses close up shop altogether.
Russell D’Alessio, artist and owner of D’Alessio Gallery, said during his 30-plus years of doing business in town and selling thousands of paintings, he’s only sold two or three to cruise ship passengers.
“In fact, when there are a lot of cruise ships, a lot of times we just close,” D’Alessio said. “I know my customers. I’ve known some of them for decades and some of them have just stopped coming because they don’t like the cruise ships.”
Due to the nature of his work, D’Alessio needs to first establish a rapport and negotiate with his customers to execute a sale. The short time allowances of a docked cruise ship do not allow for those instantaneous extended relationships.
“I’m sure it’s economically good for certain people depending on who’s making money from it,” D’Alessio said. “It depends on the quality of the town we want. I like a quieter seacoast town and it kind of makes us into a little bit of a circus.”
Rich Duperey, owner of the Stadium coffee shop, said he’s able to sustain business without the added bump of cruisers but sees the industry as necessary to bring in repeat vacationers to Bar Harbor.
“There’s a lot of people in town who feel like it only benefits a very small part of town. But I can tell you, having been here for as many years as we have, how many people have said that I found Bar Harbor from coming on a cruise,” Duperey said. “Now they’ve come every year since booking hotels, eating dinners and buying and bringing revenue for jobs.”
Duperey calls this added benefit of allowing cruisers to sample Bar Harbor an “economic ripple effect” that every type of industry, regardless of location, can eventually enjoy.
Ellie Stavnesli, owner of Christmas Vacation Shop, said when she first started out as a business owner in the ‘80s, the season was much shorter. Allowing cruise liners to port extended from a three-month period from Memorial Day to Labor Day to one that begins in late April and ends mid-November.
Other long-standing business owners see the citizen petition as a necessary measure to regain control of a small coastal town that has limited capacity to house an overabundance of tourists.
Greg and Julie Veilleux, owners of Window Panes, are in favor of the 1,000 cruise ship passenger per day cap. Twenty-eight years ago, when the Veilleux’s opened up shop, cruise ships were a strategic way to extend their offseason.
“But slowly the industry has tightened its grip on the town by allowing more and more boats, larger and larger boats,” Greg said. “We have tipped the scale to way too many cruise ships and I just think we have an opportunity now to go back.”
Greg said when cruise ships are in town, his store feels more like a turnstile than a business.
“We as a business cannot handle the large crowds anymore,” Greg said. “It’s taking up space in our business that a real customer could be taking up, who is physically shopping and enjoying what we have to offer.”
He explained that because Window Panes offers products of a higher price point, cruise ship passengers may pass up his offerings in favor of souvenirs.
“We are turning locals away, we are turning summer residents away,” Julie said. “We have people – we hear this time and time again in our business – ‘I won’t come anywhere near Bar Harbor.’”
“We are not against cruise ships, we are in favor of control,” Greg said.
There are also a select few businesses that haven’t fully decided what their stance is.
“I think what I am for is people always voicing your opinions and getting involved,” said Bo Jennings, general manager of Side Street Cafe. “Everyone that’s involved in the conversation wants what’s best for the town. We’re just attacking it from different angles.”
“I feel like everybody has a good argument,” said Maria Candage, owner of Ria’s 2nd Act. “I think there should be a balance in the middle between the cruise ships, the businesses and the locals, but I think everybody has to be respected for their thoughts because we all live here.”